When you have a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), choosing a school that will meet their needs can be a daunting task. You’re likely already dealing with a full schedule of therapies and medical appointments, and now you feel the pressure of choosing an educational path that will best help your child succeed and face the challenges of life. Should you give public school or try or seek out a special school for autism? The options – or lack of options – can feel overwhelming, and many can be costly.
In 2021, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 44 children in the United States is diagnosed with ASD. Our educational systems, both public and private, are struggling to keep up with the demand for services and resources. Part of the problem is that while autism awareness is growing, misconceptions still abound today, even in many educational settings. As a parent, you know that much of the confusion and misunderstanding stem from the fact that ASD shows up differently in every child, so most importantly, you want your child to be among teachers and peers who will get to know him or her beyond the ASD label.
Determining the right path for your student will take research, preparation, and some time and patience. It is our hope that with this post, we can help you sort through some of the available options and key factors you should consider as you embark on finding a school for autism that fits your child’s particular needs. You might also want to check out our Guide to Specialized Schools: From Learning Challenges to Accelerated Learning, which offers some practical guidance and tips about specialized school choices.
Types of Schools for Autism
Every student with ASD is unique and only you can truly know the kind of education, environment, services, and resources that will best serve him or her so they can thrive and make progress. A great place to begin is by clearly defining what your highest priorities are. If you have a high-functioning child who would do well in a diverse population, public school might work well. If your child requires more individualized attention or specific kinds of therapies, a private, specialized school may be the best fit.
At times, finding the right fit may take some trial and error. Try to remember that every experience provides valuable information in your search and that you can always change directions as needed. In the long run, you will likely find the educational option that ideally matches many of your child’s needs and personality and supports their overall development.
The main options in schools for autism include:
- Public Schools: Whether taking the mainstream route is right for your student depends greatly on how high functioning that student is, how he or she does in social situations, and the programs and services offered by your public school. While public schools are required to provide Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and accommodations for students with special needs, schools differ in the level and types of services they offer. It’s important to check with your school district to find out which services are provided. Then visit the school, meet with teachers and special education specialists, and speak with other parents to get an accurate picture of how your student’s needs will be met. How independent will your child need to be and how much help is available if it’s needed?
- Specialized Charter Schools: Charter schools are public schools that are run by private groups or organizations, and they can focus on specializations such as arts, architecture, drama, or marine science. There are charter schools in some communities that are designed for the population of students with ASD. For instance, South Florida Autism Charter Schools provides education and therapeutic services to children diagnosed with ASD who live in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Because it is public, there is no cost to attend, but students must apply to be admitted and meet eligibility requirements. Some advantages to a school like this, in addition to low cost, are that teachers and staff are trained, and that it will likely offer many therapies and services onsite. The challenges may be finding a charter school for autism in your area and if there is one, securing a spot for your child will depend on availability and meeting certain criteria.
- Specialized Private Schools: There are a growing number of specialized schools that are specifically designed for students with all levels of ASD. They offer teachers, staff, resources, activities, and therapies that support ASD students and tend to have a relatively low teacher-to-student ratio. Within this category, you may find schools that deal with a wide range of levels and others that specifically home in on a certain population or therapy. So again, you’ll want to be clear about what best meets your child’s needs as far as the learning environment, academic stimulation, and social interaction.
- Homeschool: Finally, you could choose to homeschool your student. The first thing to know is that homeschooling is regulated so you will want to research with your state’s department of education to find out what is required. You could choose to be your child’s teacher or bring in an outside teacher. This is a great option for parents who want more control over their child’s schedule, which can include many therapies on top of classes. It also provides a little more freedom and flexibility for the parent and student and can ease the struggles of getting the child dressed, ready, and out the door for school on time. There are some challenges with homeschooling, of course, such as creating socialization and making sure your child doesn’t feel lonely or isolated. It also puts a great deal of responsibility on the parents, who are already likely dealing with the everyday stresses of caring for a child with ASD.
6 Factors to Consider When Choosing a School for Autism
The best way to assess if a school has the right facilities, environment, and staff that will meet your student’s academic, social, and behavioral needs is to do your research. That includes visiting the school, interviewing teachers and administrators, having your child tour the school, and getting references of other parents you can speak with. Ask lots of questions, keeping your child’s specific needs in mind, as well as what will help you be most comfortable in terms of communication, interaction, and services offered. If you’re visiting several schools, it’s helpful to take notes so you can accurately compare each one before making your final decision.
Here are 6 key factors you will want on your checklist as you consider a school for autism:
1. Training of Teachers and Staff
In the best-case scenario, all of the people who will be educating and interacting with your child at school will have a depth of knowledge and experience with autistic children. You should always interview the teachers and staff and ask about their education, training, and any special certifications. What is their personal experience in dealing with children similar to your child and how will the typical day be structured in order to support your child’s learning and growth? You’ll want to get a sense for the classroom routine and the level of attention you can expect for your student.
Most schools for autism try to keep class sizes small and with the ever-growing numbers seeking out programs for ASD, you’ll want to get clear, honest answers about the timing of when your child might be able to get into the school. Sometimes, there are waiting lists or schools may require you apply well in advance of the admission date. Knowing the school’s timeline will help you make an informed decision about whether it’s worth pursuing admission or not.
Some schools for autism, especially those that specialize in serving children with ASD, offer a wide range of activities and therapies that accentuate growth and the development of social, behavioral, or life skills. They may offer physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, as well as additional activities such as sports, yoga classes, or clubs. Make sure you have an understanding of all the opportunities and if they are a fit with your child’s particular personality or requirements.
4. Medical Staff
It’s important to inquire about the school’s ability to deal with medical emergencies and the level of training and experience of their medical staff. Ultimately, you want to have peace of mind and know that the school provides a healthy environment and medical support if it’s needed.
Find out what you can expect as far as progress reports, parent meetings, and other communications. In addition to asking teachers, parents are a great source for learning about the school’s actual communication practices, although remember every parent will have their own comfort level. Your goal is to ascertain if the level of communication matches your style and needs.
6. Your Child
Finally, one of the most important factors in your decision has to be how your child feels. When you tour a prospective school, pay close attention to their reactions. Are there aspects that might be overwhelming or overstimulating for them? Do they seem to feel comfortable in the classroom and with the instructors? You know your child best – trust your parental instincts!
Your Child Can Thrive and Succeed
With the growing number of schooling options for children with ASD, there is very likely a school setting that will provide the academic, social, behavioral, and supportive services your child needs to thrive as a student and prepare for life beyond school. Your knowledge of your child’s unique situation and requirements, as well as thorough research, school tours, and asking questions that assure your peace of mind will help you make an educated decision about the next step in your child’s education.
If you feel you could use more assistance in locating the right school for your student, contact us to arrange a meeting with our specialized school choices expert.